Julianna Martin faced a difficult task Monday afternoon.
When Martin returned home, she found a shopping catalog, packed with the latest in holiday coupons, sales and sample fragrances.
For most people, flipping through this catalog is an afterthought, but for Martin, the sample perfumes smell anything but sweet. Any type of fragrance makes Martin sick.
“You take in a little perfume, the next thing you know, you can’t read or write,” said Martin, 25, a third-year graduate student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “It can go anywhere from stomach problems to brain fog.”
Martin is among an increasing number of activists who believe fragrances, commonly believed to be the cause of some rashes and a potential trigger of asthma, are also the cause of headaches, muscle pain and nausea.
While some believe these symptoms are just a result of a psychosomatic ailment or an undiagnosed allergy, advocates claim reactions to these chemicals are a condition known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, also known as MCS.
More than 36 million Americans are suffering from MCS, according to a recent statement from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
In the past 20 years, the number of fragranced products has multiplied from perfumes and scents to encompass shampoos, house-care products, laundry detergents and fabric softener, said Zeanne Lange, a spokeswoman for the Chemical Injury Resource Association of Minnesota.
“The clothing stores, there are chemicals you’ll be exposed to,” Lange said. “Each piece of clothing has a half a pound of chemicals to make it wrinkle-free. There’s a reason why people go shopping and they get thirsty and tired.”
The New York State Department of Health has yet to make a decision one way or the other on whether to officially recognize MCS as an official illness.
“The state has been pretty consistent that they want more studies,” said Steve Shost, a research scientist for Department of Health. “That’s not to say the state says that it doesn’t exist, but that the state hasn’t seen enough evidence.”
Although the cosmetics industry says the products are safe, several institutions and organizations, including Crouse Hospital, are concerned about the effects of fragrances on people’s health.
“Our policy is, colognes and perfumes are limited so they’re not offensive to patients, visitors and other employees,” Crouse spokeswoman Nancy Erhard said. “Employees who provide direct patient care don’t wear colognes and perfumes.”
Still, the American Medication Association Council on Scientific Affairs currently doesn’t recognize MCS as a legitimate illness.
“People who believe they have MCS may truly be suffering from some other physical or psychological ailment,” according to a recent statement issued by Procter and Gamble, which produces Old Spice, Crest and Cover Girl, among other products that use fragrances. “As a result, the concept of multiple chemical sensitivity has spread within the popular culture, despite overwhelming medical evidence that MCS is not a clinical disease.”
The statements from Procter and Gamble seem to be supported by a study from Dr. Howard Hu, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health and a staff member at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Braintree, Mass.
In a 1999 study, Hu compared the brains of 27 patients with MCS to 27 without it. Using scanning equipment to monitor brain states, Hu found those who said they had MCS had differences in the area of the brain linked to mood and ability to concentrate.
While treating symptoms of MCS can prove to be effective, Hu claimed a more comprehensive treatment, including the involvement of a psychologist or a psychiatrist is needed.
“We try to share with them there is no proven way to diagnose or treat this condition,” Hu said. “But we try to share with them that there should be some balance of avoiding environmental situation that trigger symptoms while making sure they are getting treatment for any other psychological condition.”
Hu encouraged those with MCS to avoid areas with heavy fragrances areas like department stores or supermarkets, but not to shy away from all social situations.
That has been difficult advice to follow for Martin, who has had to drop classes because of other students who wear heavy cologne or perfume. She has also had to repeatedly ask neighbors to keep their areas odor-free.
“Sometimes they just forget,” Martin said. “When that happens, it’s like being high or something.”